Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola's first foray behind the camera in a decade, is a world-class conundrum. It's an unabashedly philosophical and cerebral work by a director who once gloried in making heart-pounding, mass-market dramas. It is a personal film, and a deeply felt one, yet utterly lacking in emotional punch. Youth Without Youth is impeccably crafted, befitting a filmmaker with 45 years of experience, but it's stultifying from start to finish. Here's the final paradox: The movie looks and sounds great from moment to moment, but the whole is significantly less than the sum of its parts.
Youth Without Youth is a resounding misfire, in other words, but it cannot be dismissed with a shovelful of scorn. I'm not suggesting that 20 years from now we'll realize that Coppola made another masterpiece to rank with the first two Godfather movies, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. But neither should Youth Without Youth be reviled as self-indulgent dreck, or the unfocused mumblings of an older filmmaker (hell, he's only 68) who should have all his cameras, gadgets and gizmos locked safely out of reach.
Coppola adapted Romanian writer Mircea Eliade's novella, first published in English in 1988, and the film is suffused with a mid-20th-century Eastern European sensibility. (That's true, oddly enough, even in the sequences set in India and Malta.) It's the same stillborn mood that permeated all those airless, lifeless Euro-pudding period pieces shot in Prague in the '80s and '90s, with two-dimensional characters wandering among elegant buildings. We feel as if we're watching events unfold through a veneer of amber and velvet, like in a museum or Madame Tussaud's waxworks.
The lugubrious plot centers on Dominic Mattei (Tim Roth), a septuagenarian professor who's struck by lightning on the street and, instead of succumbing to his burns, is rejuvenated and reborn as a man some 40 years younger. Bruno Ganz brings a touch of wit and humanity to the role of Dominic's doctor, which is sorely missed once he departs the proceedings.
With his unexpected life extension, Dominic now has the chance to complete his academic, ambitious and (to most moviegoers) hopelessly irrelevant life's work. But first he must sidestep the Nazis, who want to corral whatever mystical power he has miraculously obtained. There's a dame involved, naturally, and there's also another girl, revealed in flashbacks, who loved Dominic back in their student days but broke up with him because he always put his work first.
A third girl shows up in due time, a kind of reincarnation of Dominic's old girlfriend who becomes a vehicle for his major research project. (It's a completely abstract concept involving language and communication, without a wisp of urgency or dramatic power.) But Dominic comes to see that his work is taking a physical toll on his lover, and must choose one or the other.
Despite all these love interests, Youth Without Youth is a stunningly chaste film. My complaint, however, isnÂ‘t that Coppola fails to supply enough skin to compete with the other fare down at the multiplex. Rather, it's that his characters aren't flesh-and-blood people. Coppola never used to be so stingy with precious bodily fluids, so what's going on? Certainly his sex drive isn't what it was when he cast Playboy playmates-of-the-month for a key scene in Apocalypse Now, but he couldn't have forgotten that the life force is what truly drives people -- and movies.
Youth Without Youth invites us to ponder why a director with four immortal films to his credit, who was allowed to do most anything he wanted, identifies with a character doomed to fall so far short of his professional (and romantic) goals. This is, alas, the final conundrum. At least Coppola isn't asking for our sympathy, or ourpity. Good thing, too, because his film doesn't provoke anystronger response than a shrug.
Youth Without Youth opens Fri, Dec. 14, 2007.